In light of the privilege wars and with the emergence of female voices in the liberty movement, the concept of male disposability has become hot topic and common argument against the value of feminism.
The argument goes like this: Society has always valued the lives of women more than those of men. This is because, pre-historically, the continuation of the species required many women—who had reproductive limits—but few men, who could theoretically reduce their numbers to one and still provide a steady stream (pun intended) of offspring. This tendency prevailed and even in the present, men face their mortality more often than women do. On a sinking ship, it’s always “women and children first,” and men are still solely targeted for the draft. Because men are disposable, they are given less affection in childhood and are chastised for displays of emotion throughout life. Women may be objectified, but unlike men, they are more likely to be protected from harm.
Speakers like Stefan Molyneux and Karen Straughan use this claim to discredit feminism, which, in their estimation, seeks to maintain this standard and also aims to strip men of the respect they’ve earned through their sacrifices.
Before addressing the crux of this argument—that feminism is incongruous with acknowledging male disposability—it has to be said that the “women as the protected gender” portion of their argument betrays a narrow view of race and class on the part of the claimants. Being a woman—currently and historically—may buy you “protected ornament” status, but only if you were lucky enough to be born in the right ethnic and socioeconomic class. Otherwise, your disposability was usually tied to your utility as a sex object.
Poor women and women of color died right alongside their men in factories and fields throughout history, and while they didn’t face the battlefield, losing their partner in war often meant vulnerability to starvation and predation. On the Titanic, wealthy men waited for their wives to board the lifeboats, but women in steerage died at roughly the same rates as wealthy men.
Putting aside that oversight, the claim that men experience unique inequalities due to their gender make some sense. Men face dangers in combat that women generally don’t (at least in this country), and male infant circumcision is widely practiced, while FGM—usually more brutal, though still stemming from disrespect for the bodily autonomy of children—is decried as barbaric. Girls have more culturally accepted mobility through traditional gender roles than boys do.
What doesn’t make sense is using male disposability to discredit feminism. People who identify as feminists hold differing views on many issues, but textbook feminism is not incompatible with an opposition to male disposability, in theory or practice. Feminism originated in the 18th century, largely in part from the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, an anarchist who argued for women’s rights on the grounds that men and women were individuals and the subjugation of one to the other benefitted neither. Throughout the 19th century, feminists combatted major institutions of male disposability, such as exploitative labor and slavery.
Presently, feminists still make up a large faction of the anti-war movement, and proponents of women in combat use feminism to defend their position. The anti-infant circumcision movement has its fair share of feminists, and feminists have long been allies of the LGBTQ community, which has lost countless men and boys to society-sanctioned homophobia.
Feminism began as a reaction to female disposability. Until the last few decades, women were largely denied complete humanity, legally and socially. Though women didn’t die en masse on the battlefield, young girls sold into marriages died in the birthing bed in staggering numbers. Domestic violence was treated as a private issue and marital rape wasn’t nationally criminalized until 1993.
But disposability isn’t exclusive to either gender and feminists’ acknowledgment of its impact on women doesn’t necessitate denying the impact on men. This is the fundamental problem with the way most people present the disposability argument—they use it to draw lines in the sand, not to address the real problem. Stefan Molyneux and Karen Straughan don’t address their accusations to the states or theocratic institutions that perpetuated male disposability for 2000 years before feminism came on the scene. They don’t attack the “my son will not be a sissy,” macho culture. Instead, they direct their ire at feminism, a movement that’s devoted a lot of time and energy to dismantling those institutions for the betterment of all people.